Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Frogs (1972) dir. George McCowan

LoglineThe wealthy Crockett family has gathered at their secluded island estate to celebrate the Fourth of July and the birthday of their patriarch, Jason Crockett (Ray Milland). It would be a joyous festivity if not for the steady mysterious disappearances of guests and the incessant croaking of those beady-eyed amphibians staring through the windows...

Animal(s) of Choice: All of them. Frogs, lizards, snakes, alligators, spiders, scorpions, leeches, birds, turtles, and crabs.

Thinking Ecologically: Jason Crockett is peeved with what he notices is an increased frog population around his island estate. Feeling that their nonstop croakings ruin the ambiance of his yearly celebration, he hires a man to spray pesticides in and around the lake. As a last ditch effort he also considers pouring oil into the lake, which will certainly thin out the frogs along with most other lifeforms. Crockett proudly declares, "I still believe man is the master of the world" and his actions demonstrate as much when he attempts frog genocide merely because of their unpleasant noise. When Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), an environmentalist photo journalist, asks Crockett why he can't attempt to live with the frogs in harmony, Crockett grunts, "you call that racket harmony?" It would be a little easy to read Crockett having "overdone it with pesticides" as the sole cause of the particular animal revolt highlighted in Frogs, but it seems more apt (especially in light of the presumed apocalyptic conclusion for this cinematic world) that he is instead emblematic of the general human response to the environment, which rarely considers the welfare of the little creatures in its all-consuming antropocentrism.

Thinking About Animals: As mentioned above, the film features more than just frogs wreaking swampy revenge. So why a title focusing on only a singular species? The frogs are certainly central to the Crocketts' dilemma and they're always seen hopping about somewhere in the background of every scene, but they take a passive, unobtrusive role when it comes to the actual violence (barring the final scene, in which they hop on a man en masse and kill him. I think). Instead, the cavalcade of other vengeful animals (primarily snakes and lizards, probably because they were the cheapest and easiest to handle) seem almost as if they're in the employ of the frogs and are doing the amphibians' dirty work for them as they sit out of reach, observing and ribbiting. (The violence these animals perpetrate on their human victims is, on the film's shoestring budget, often amusing. For instance, one guest of the island is killed in a greenhouse when a handful of lizards invade and deliberately knock vials containing poisonous gases off of shelves).

One other bit of perplexing animal-related business that's less explicable than odd and noteworthy: Unsurprisingly, Crockett has an array of stuffed safari animals heads lined up on his study's wall, and the film's closing scene pulls the peculiar move of including a bunch of quick zooms of these stationary heads each accompanied with the incorrect animal sound (imagine seeing a lion clucking). Does this moment speak to the unity of animals against humankind, intimating that they've become a single, multi-headed organism seeking revenge? Does it instead imply Crockett's general ignorance of animal life? Is it a simple audio mistake? You've got me stumped.

Evaluation in Brief: Besides Night of the Lepus (1972), Frogs is the only other pre-Jaws Animal Terror film I've covered this month. That said, it's interesting to see how much debt some of the post-Jaws slate of films owe to earlier Ecological Apocalypse films like Frogs as opposed to the Unstoppable Creature model that Jaws ushered in. Despite its misleading title, Frogs would find its closest descendents in films like Day of the Animals (1977) and Long Weekend (1978), with their mutual emphasis on the entirety of nature turning foul-- rather than a lone isolated species-- and the consequences of this ecological shift proving cataclysmic for human life on Earth. Unfortunately, Frogs is a lot less interesting and thematically rich than those later films. The animal attacks are goofy and bereft of tension, composed as they are of long scenes of the human victims stumbling through the woods from one snake to another. One of these attacks is so bizarrely filmed that it's tough to be certain whether or not the victim is being ravaged by a group of spiders or steadily piling grass. Sam Elliott goes through the motions of playing our brooding hero, while Ray Milland hams it up and without an ounce of irony foreshadows James Mason's cantankerous plantation owner from the later Mandingo (1975). The film plays its hokey moments of non-terror straight, which in situations like this generally lend a film a bit of unintentional humor to the general humorlessness. An accidental chuckle or two will indeed spring forth, but Frogs is neither the somber and serious ecological warning it aspires to nor the camp classic one would imagine it to be.

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